IQ News: Channel Surfers Get Their Fix




Personalized television listings are the Net’s newest battleground.
As its latest attempt at TV/Internet convergence launches with Windows 98, Microsoft will be entering competition in yet another arena of Web content. This time, Bill Gates’ multimedia empire will be taking on sites providing one of interactivity’s most popular applications online–personalized television program listings. Instead of merely luring away television viewers, the Web has also offered advanced reference tools for millions of TV fans making viewing choices–a desirable audience for television network, snack food and other advertisers.
Microsoft will try to siphon off some of this audience via software in Windows 98 for downloading local program schedules on screen, a technology adapted from the firm’s recent set-top hardware acquisition, WebTV. For the moment, this scheme is at a severe disadvantage, since it requires existing PCs to be fitted with TV tuners and new PCs to include such circuitry–at an extra cost of $100 or more. The competition shows no signs of panic.
Traffic is exploding on TV-themed Web sites which have taken a page from TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and other print publications by offering more than listings and critics’ picks to satisfy the near-insatiable thirst for behind-the-tube information.
Currently, TVGEN (tvgen.com), the online version of TV Guide, is the most heavily-trafficked TV Web site, according to RelevantKnowledge, an Atlanta-based Web traffic measurement firm (the company monitors Internet usage but cannot track the Web surfing of the huge America Online audience).
RelevantKnowledge says that site had 1.1 million unique visitors in March, nearly triple its December numbers, and handily above entertainment-centric destinations such as the Disney-funded Mr. Showbiz and E! Online, the online spinoff of the E! cable channel.
For TVGEN, and its parent, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., the site’s current perch at the top of the Web comes after a couple of public embarrassments–in the Web’s early days News Corp. pulled the plug on the ambitious guide to the Internet, iGuide, and then created a lackluster TV Guide Online site.
Last year, the site was renamed the TV Guide Entertainment Network, with a range of content including movie, gossip, and horoscope sections. Visitors spend a remarkable average of 22 minutes per visit with the likes of the New York Post’s Page Six and Titanic (also Murdoch properties), but for many the initial attraction is to TV schedules listed more than a week in advance. “In focus groups on the West Coast, pretty consistently we found people planning their viewing a week or two ahead,” says Matt Jacobson, executive vice president of News America Digital Publishing, the News Corp. division producing the site.
Another audience study by the Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group of tvgen.com and its closest online TV listings competitor, gisttv.com, revealed that more than half of the traffic was coming from people’s workplaces. According to Gartner senior research analyst Maureen Fleming, “Instead of going off on a break, they bring their coffee in front of their PCs and plan their television viewing.” With fast Internet connections at work, visitors to TV-themed Web sites click-through on a fairly regular basis to 60-second promos delivered via streaming video.
Not surprisingly, ABC Television has bought exclusive placement for the current TV sweeps season of promo videos for its prime time shows on tvgen.com’s listings; the season’s last episodes of Baywatch are being promoted in streaming video on gisttv.com. Sites dispensing TV listings also offer a level of customization that would be impossible to achieve in any other medium. TVGEN, for instance, now offers 150 ZIP-code specific editions, and will soon expand to more than 11,000 channel grids for all the local cable systems in the U.S.
Two-year-old Gist Communications, New York-based producer of gisttv.com, quickly established its interactive credentials as first online with 11,000 cable listing grids and further personalization of TV schedules through a registration procedure eliciting viewers’ favorite channels, program types and even movie preferences.
With competition for TV listings at a fever pitch on the Web, TVGEN has the financial clout to narrow the field. Parent News Corp. is reportedly in talks to acquire TVSM. The Horsham, Pa.-based company, publisher of The Cable Guide in print, owns Total TV, a younger-skewing Web site that would likely become part of the TVGEN fold.
Unable to challenge TV Guide head-on for brand recognition, Gist Communications founder and CEO Jonathan Greenberg has opted for building much of gisttv.com’s audience, and revenue, through becoming a branded listings partner on Web portals, the increasingly popular gateway pages greeting Internet users when they first log onto the Web.
The company scored its biggest coup in February by teaming up with Yahoo for co-branded personalized TV listings on the Yahoo TV coverage site (tv.yahoo.com); before the deal, Yahoo’s TV listings were supplied by TV Guide. It has also made co-branding arrangements with other sites, including usatoday.com, msnbc.com, and Entertainment Asylum, the Hollywood-focused site America Online launched last year. “Without saying anything disparaging about TV Guide, we have a good reputation for service,” explains Gist’s Greenberg. “A company like Yahoo wants to be treated with the respect it merits.”
With the print edition of TV Guide having caught some flack for allegedly favoring Fox TV (another Murdoch holding) in its editorial coverage, Gist stresses its own independent status. The strategy has gained fans. “One of Gist’s main selling points is that it’s not News Corp.,” says Mark Mooradian, group director for consumer content at Jupiter Communications, New York.
With a total of 20 sites now running its content, Gist claimed six million total viewers for its listings in March. And rather than sit still, the gisttv.com site just unveiled a major facelift, with simpler graphics and a single TV topic of the day to make for easier downloading and navigation.
It speaks to the intense competition in this particular Web content category that gisttv.com now finds itself competing with itself, in a sense. The company buys all its schedule information and program summaries from Tribune Media Services, a major supplier of TV listings to America’s newspapers both in print and online. The success of gisttv.com prodded Chicago-based Tribune to launch its own direct-to-consumer site, tvquest.com, last month.
Stay tuned.